If you’ve been reading some of the overhyped commentary on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s emerging foreign policy, you might be under the mistaken belief that he is engaged in nothing less than a dramatic about-face, abandoning his country’s decades-old treaty alliance with the United States and embracing China after bearing the brunt of its South China Sea assertiveness (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”). In recent weeks, some have taken this sensationalism a step further by arguing that there could be some sort of chain reaction in the region away from the United States and towards China.
In my trips to Southeast Asia as well as conversations I’ve had with scholars and policymakers, I’ve certainly detected a mixture of nervousness and caution in regional capitals. Few would disagree that Duterte’s foreign policy has implications for the region, not just because of its claimant status on the South China Sea disputes or its status as a U.S. ally amid U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia, but because it holds the ASEAN chairmanship in 2017 during the grouping’s 50th anniversary. It is important not to understate the significance of this, especially since this was a variable that not many even saw coming in the first place.
But it is also important not to overstate the impact that Duterte can have on the behavior of other Southeast Asian states – a diverse, capable set of nations used to dealing with shifting geopolitical alignments far more dramatic than this nascent one. Indeed, suggesting that Duterte’s embrace of China and snubbing of the United States might trigger some sort of domino effect in the region not only fundamentally misunderstands what drives alignments in Southeast Asia, but grossly exaggerates the Philippines’ status within the region and overestimates Duterte’s foreign policy.
Firstly, suggesting that a realignment in one Southeast Asian country might trigger some sort of domino effect in other neighboring states is a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives alignments in the region in general as well as developments in this sphere of late more specifically.
Southeast Asian states, like others in the international system, determine the costs and benefits of aligning more or less with one actor relative to another based on a complex range of factors that can be simplified to include the distribution of capabilities, threat perceptions, ideology and domestic politics. The actions of other states may have an indirect role at the margins in the sense that they may play into factors like regional perceptions or uncertainty about the future. But even then, states must consider a full range of domestic, regional and global developments, rather than just what one country does.
Similarly, ASEAN states today do not consider Duterte’s actions in isolation as they determine their alignment options, but as part of a more complex picture. The region has seen the growing involvement of major powers in recent years, most prominently (though not only) the United States and China, with Washington increasing its commitment to Southeast Asia and Beijing under Xi Jinping persisting in its calibrated strategy designed to both draw ASEAN states closer to its orbit while also incrementally advancing its position on certain issues even at the expense of these countries. This has interacted with other domestic and global developments – from the rise of new leaders like Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to the global financial crisis – to shape the alignment choices of Southeast Asian states.
So, even though Malaysian Prime Minister Najib’s visit to China this week has already been portrayed in some media outlets as a second consecutive victory for Beijing after Duterte’s trip there last month, Malaysia’s engagement of China is in fact rooted in a more complex set of factors, including the history of Sino-Malaysian relations (it was Najib’s father who normalized ties with China); the country’s troubled economy as it heads for the next general elections; and Najib’s involvement in the deepening 1MDB scandal. Furthermore, absent from the coverage will be Malaysia’s quieter efforts to contend with China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its burgeoning relationship with the United States.
It is also important to remember that Duterte’s U.S.-China rebalance, to grossly oversimplify things, is only the latest of several realignments we have witnessed in Southeast Asia over the past decade – in different directions and to different degrees. On the one hand, Cambodia, already a traditional ally of China, has moved even closer towards Beijing embrace – with clear consequences for the South China Sea and ASEAN unity – while Thailand has also tilted slightly towards Beijing in the post-coup era. On the other hand, the diversification sought by Myanmar, and more recently, Laos, as well as Vietnam’s warming ties with the United States, are partly, though not wholly, the result of uncertainty about China. Meanwhile, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have all been trying to walk a balance between strengthening ties with China and the United States to varying degrees, but all have also toughened their stance towards Beijing to a certain extent over the past year in response to its growing assertiveness.
Indeed, to the extent that there has been a trend in the region over the past few years, it has been what one might call the “Xi Jinping effect” – where China’s behavior along with other factors have led to growing anxiety in many Southeast Asian capitals and resulted in more indirect balancing not seen previously, largely through diversified foreign relationships but also in some cases strengthened economic and security capabilities. Southeast Asian states have been gradually diversifying away from Beijing rather than dramatically moving towards it as Duterte appears to be doing. Far from setting some sort of regional trend, Duterte is out of step with where the region has been heading, and out of step with the Philippine bureaucracy and people as well given the fact that his country has borne the brunt of China’s assertiveness in the region but is now “underbalancing.”
Second and more specifically, a “Duterte effect” seems quite ahistorical to those attuned to regional developments. Southeast Asian states have not taken their cue from the Philippines in the past when determining their approaches to the United States and China. Recent observers may think that this is the case, given the Philippines’ status under Benigno Aquino III as one of Asia’s fastest growing economies, Southeast Asia’s lone voice taking on China in the South China Sea, and a stalwart U.S. ally.
But this is very much an aberration for seasoned observers. The Philippines that Southeast Asia is used to is one with decades of anemic economic growth and underinvestment in one of Asia’s weakest militaries, alongside rampant corruption, political instability, and uncertain shifts between the United States and China, as evidenced by the closure of U.S. bases in 1992 as well as Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s ill-advised tilt towards Beijing in the 2000s.
Put more simply, the Philippines is hardly a bellwether for the state of Southeast Asian alignments, the way Singapore is, or even the shape of U.S. regional alliances the way Japan might be (Thailand, Washington’s other ally, is arguably an equally poor indicator). If anything, Duterte’s emergence has only confirmed to other Southeast Asian states the wisdom of continuing to hedge their bets when it comes to the United States and China to varying degrees, even as one of their brethren swings too far one way or the other.
Depending on how things play out, Duterte may also confirm long-held fears among wary regional observers – myself included – that Aquino’s departure could see the Philippines either revert back to its days of uncertainty or perhaps turn inward (See: “Will the Philippines’ Next President Maintain Aquino’s Reform Momentum?”). Either way, the result would be some variation of the Philippines returning to not being a reliable and increasingly capable U.S. ally in the U.S.-China balance, but a wobbly American partner selectively cooperating where it suits its interests but also embracing China where it suits it.
Third and finally, if it is ahistorical to suggest that Southeast Asian states would take their cue from the Philippines in the past when determining their approaches to the United States and China, then it is hasty to suggest that these states could be part of some domino effect this early in Duterte’s term. In recent trips I’ve taken to Southeast Asia over the past few months, more seasoned observers have indicated a “wait-and-see approach” towards Duterte’s words and actions, rather than a rush to action.
The reason for that is fairly obvious. Sensationalist commentary aside, it is important to remind ourselves that we are just over four months into a single six-year term of a domestic-focused president who has little foreign policy experience but has signaled a lot of changes abroad without many specifics about how this will take place. Domestically, Duterte’s status as an outsider seeking to dramatically change so much has led to worries about whether he will even complete his term in office. Foreign policy wise, the skeletal notion of an “independent foreign policy” put forth by his team – one which sees the Philippines being less reliant on the United States and diversifying its ties with other states including China – barely qualifies as an aspiration, let alone a strategy.
More specifically, it is unclear how far this so-called U.S.-China rebalance will actually go. On the China side, past Philippine embraces of Beijing have ended up caught in corruption scandals or derailed by subsequent Chinese actions including in the South China Sea, with Arroyo’s cautionary tale being the most oft-cited example (See: “The Risks of Duterte’s China and South China Sea Policy”). With respect to the United States, it remains to be seen how much Duterte can and will move away from Washington, and whether that will last. As I have indicated before, there is still the possibility that we could end up with just a downgraded U.S.-Philippine alliance, with the nixing of some cooperation Duterte is averse to but some selective and quiet collaboration in other areas (See: “Will Duterte Really End the US-Philippine Military Alliance?”).
More broadly, it is uncertain how these two countries will fit into Duterte’s broader foreign policy, which is still evolving. Duterte and his advisers have suggested that their “independent foreign policy” would seek to strengthen ties not only with China, but other ASEAN countries as well as Japan and South Korea, with a focus on Asian economic integration. Whether this is mere rhetoric to disguise the administration’s dramatic turn towards China or a reality remains to be seen. Though Duterte’s trip to Japan did seem to suggest that the relationship is a key focus of his administration, we will likely have to wait for other trips as well as the Philippine chairmanship of ASEAN next year to truly assess this.
The Perception Caveat
While there are some strong arguments against the idea that the “Duterte effect’”will actually result in a domino effect in terms of the way other Southeast Asian states align in reality, Duterte’s U.S.-China rebalance is nonetheless significant because it does affect the outlook of Southeast Asian states, China, the United States, as well as other observers with respect to certain issues or trends.
For Southeast Asian states, with the Philippines now looking to downplay the South China Sea issue and play up its embrace of China, the development has created a more permissive environment for ASEAN states to lower the temperature on the South China Sea question and move towards improving ASEAN-China relations. That could be viewed as a good thing, provided that Beijing actually follows up on its confidence-building measures. Unfortunately, Duterte’s actions also risks producing backsliding on the South China Sea question, with other less forward-leaning claimants like Malaysia and non-claimants like Singapore now left with inadequate ‘cover’ to advocate for a stronger ASEAN stance on the issue, and laggards like Cambodia now equipped with an additional excuse for their obstructionism.
China, on the other hand, may conclude that Duterte’s embrace suggests that its calibrated strategy designed to both draw ASEAN states closer to its orbit while also incrementally advancing its position on certain issues even at the expense of these countries may actually be working. The Philippine case may demonstrate to some in Beijing that China can afford to make incremental pushes on certain issues to alter the status quo in its favor, absorbing any short-term costs but then holding out for countries to eventually recognize the benefits of engaging Beijing or actively charming them. That is a lesson that could well have implications for other Southeast Asian states as well.
Lastly, Duterte’s actions play into an ongoing narrative within the media as well as in some scholarly and policymaking circles in the region about the rise of China and the perceived decline of the United States, and how countries should react. Irrespective of the details and nuances, the story about the head of state of a U.S. ally announcing his “separation” from Washington while in Beijing writes itself and serves as a good hook for the broader idea that the United States is losing in Asia and the Obama administration’s pivot is failing. That is not grounded in reality. But then again, in international relations, perception often creates its own reality.